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A CurtainUp Review
Shakespeare in the Theater Festival
All's Well That Ends Well
The Brick, co-founded by Michael Gardner and Robert Honeywell in 2002, has been making waves in Williamsburg for over a decade now. The company is best-known for its Clown Festival (a relic from the festival, a sparkly golden nose, is on display at the box office) and co-artistic directors Gardner and Honeywell are always programming new festivals to amaze adventurous theatergoers. Currently in full swing is their Shakespeare in the Theater Festival which features 10 plays from the Bard's canon, including two Macbeths, Julius Caesar, and the rarely-staged All's Well That Ends Well. Theatergoers who can't decide on any single offering, can resolve the dilemma, as I did, by going to two performances on a given day. I saw Measure for Measure and Macbeth: Thrice for Once on a Friday evening during the first week of the festival and left invigorated for more fest samplings, so followed up with All's Well That Ends Well.
Below my reviews of the trio of plays I saw.
Measure for Measure.
In spite of the protests earlier this summer about politicalizing a Shakespeare play, Kathleen Hefferon's new take on Measure for Measure aspires to make it a modern-day parable about Trump's America. In fact, the promotional blurb online for the show on the Brick's homepage reads: "the text highlights the similarities between Isabella's circumstances and the conditions faced by women in 2017 after a man accused of rape and sexual assault became the President of the United States."
Although I'm not sure that the Trump-esque conceit is fully realized in Hefferon's bare-boned staging of Shakespeare's 1604 play, what does come across on stage is some mighty fine acting by Blake Williams as Angelo and energized performances from the rest of the ten-member ensemble.
Dressed in an ultra-conservative business suit, Williams captures the trajectory of his character as he goes from being a calloused agent of Vienna's law to a man exposed and humbled by Duke Vincentio (O my dread lord,/ I should be guiltier than my guiltiness).
. Matthew Ip Shaw, as Duke Vincentio, has the lion's share of the verse. In the key role of Isabella, Whitney Biancur projects the requisite virtue and adds a smidgeon of sweetness to her virginal character, making the saint-in-the-flesh more likable. There's some gender-bending of characters too. Alejandra Venancio and Raven Pierson play Angelo's second-in-command man Escalus and the pimp Pompey Bum, respectively.
Hefferon temporarily doffs her director's hat to step in as the preposterously named Mistress Overdone, the bordello madam and the one who breaks the news about Claudio's prosecution in Act 1. Ian Moody is well-cast as the dissolute Lucio and shows how the rogue hoists with his own petard in Act 4. Fiona Rae Brunner, who performs Mariana and Elbow, does a fine job with both. Her Mariana even manages to pull off the bed trick scene without making the device seem too clunky.
True, there have been more lavish productions of Measure for Measure in New York. But Hefferon's streamlined version scores for its intimacy. You get to see the action up close and hear the performers deliver the famous speeches in a normal conversational tone. While not all the actors have an equal command of Shakespeare's verse, each can wrap their mouths around the language and make it sing.
Whether you see Trumpian overtones in this production or not, Hefferon's interpretation nails down its key themes: the testing of a ruler in his first days of office and what goes on behind closed doors.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. Reviewed at press performance of 8/04/17
Macbeth: Thrice and Once.
Adapted and directed by J. W. Randall, this compact version of the Scottish play features a trio of actors (Ryan William Downey, Clara Francesca, and J. W. Randall) who dramatize the story of Macbeth with only seven characters and a lot of chutzpah. Clocking in at one hour, this piece unfolds at lightning speed and invites you into the dark and superstitious world of the Macbeths.
Macbeth: Thrice and Once is a true creation in its own right. Rather than strictly following the trajectory of Shakespeare's drama, Randall uses a Joycean stream-of-consciousness effect to tell this tragic tale about power and ambition. His opening scene is the familiar incantation of the three witches, but what follows is a wild mash-up of the most vivid scenes from Macbeth.
Don't expect to see King Duncan, Banquo, Fleance, Malcolm, or the brave but unfortunate Lady Macduff and her children. Randall jettisons 21 characters from the dramatis personae and invents the character of King Duff (the father of Macduff), who's a virtual stand-in for the original Duncan. The other six characters in this experimental theater piece include the Macbeths, the Weird Sisters, and Macduff.
Okay, it seems like a tall order to have just 7 characters carry the entire play. But Randall, who directs (and performs Macbeth and a Weird Sister), has blocked the scenes so cleanly that the story of Macbeth almost plays itself.
Masks (created by Katie May) are employed to fine effect here. First worn by the Weird Sisters, they create mood, underscore character, and enable actors to morph from one character to another with quicksilver speed.
Randall has pulled off a real hat trick in his Macbeth: Thrice and Once. If you want to see the Scottish play done in 60 minutes, here's your ideal chance.
Running Time: One hour with no intermission. Reviewed at August 4th at 9:30pm press performance.
| All's Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare and Lady Gaga make strange bedfellows in the Brick's All's Well That Ends Well. Directed by James Wyrwicz, this electropop interpretation of the Bard's early Jacobean play is unpretentious as the five young actors who perform in it.
Go early to see and perhaps chat with some of the performers. When I entered the black box theater, a recording of Lady Gaga's "The Cure" was playing. Several actors in casual clothes had Sharpies in hand and were writing down the names of the play's dramatis personae on plain paper and then taping each to the brick wall at stage right. There was a palpable esprit de corps on stage, with the thespians sometimes pausing from their stage business to dance enthusiastically to Lady Gaga's music..
When the play proper began, the five-member ensemble slipped into their personas by taking one of the character-specific papers from the stage wall and sticking it visibly onto their clothing. Yes, it's certainly quicker and easier than the Method approach to acting. What's more, it allows the audience to easily identify who's who in this seldom-staged work.
Never a crowd-pleaser, this play has two strong women characters, Helena and the Countess of Roussillon. It's often eschewed because of the unlikable character Bertram, the Count of Roussillon, who weds a physician's daughter named Helena but refuses to bed her and goes off to war. Spoiler alert: Helena pursues him, and in the bed-trick scene, not only beds her, but impregnates her with a royal heir. Naturally, there's much, much more to the story but that's all I'll say here
What makes this production memorable is the sheer imagination that goes into it. The scrub-faced cast — Colin Barham, Keara Benton, Hayley Cartee, Keyana Hemphill, and Kadence Neill —look like they are having a terrific time on stage—and their spirit is contagious. Having each performer wear name works in a perverse sort of way here. Case in point: the social snob Bertram who abandons his new bride Helena aptly wears a Bye, Bye, Bertie name-tag. The gimmicky word play on Bertram's name adds much levity to this dark comedy.
No doubt Lady Gaga's music is what really kicks this production into high gear with iconic songs strategically incorporated into crucial scenes to amplify the play's themes of betrayal and healing.
Wyrwicz's All's Well That Ends Well isn't perfect but it surely is in an American key.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. Reviewed at the press performance on August 6th at 7pm.
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Shakespeare Festival at the Brick Theater, 579 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (L train to Lorimer Street Station and walk one block to the theater.
From 8/02/17 to 8/26/17
For more information about all offerings, 718-285-3863 or www.bricktheater.com
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